Most children get irritable in the afternoon and less able to learn. For an Autistic child, these effects can happen earlier and with a lot greater intensity. Whilst the culmination of sensory and cognitive overload can’t always be avoided, there are some things which help a child manage the overwhelm.
- At school, see if the teacher can establish a “quiet zone” or “chill out space” in the class room.
Every classroom should have an inclusive space where a child can just take a moment. It’s recommended that you involve children in the creation of this space to ensure it is suitable for their needs. This area should ideally allow privacy, with reduced sensory input, be comfortable and cosy (I recommend putting some cushions and perhaps a tent or canopy, and quiet activities which are not overly stimulating or challenging e.g. colouring, reading, listening to music, threading beads). This space can be used as a “sensory break” area or a retreat when feeling overwhelmed. This space can be for everyone to use.
- Provide frequent breaks
Whilst most children have breaks from learning during the standard 1st (Recess) and 2nd (Lunch) breaks, some children (particularly Autistic children) often need more breaks than is normally allowed. Pre-planned and scheduled breaks ensures appropriate time and space for rest. The strategy should not be “just come and ask if you want a break”. Many children have not yet developed a good understanding of their internal cues for break, and may also find it additionally challenging to have to go and ask you for it.
- Make a calming sensory box
Whilst it could seem counter-intuitive for an overstimulated child – a sensory box can offer sensations which have a regulating affect e.g. soft/textured fabric, kinetic sand, squishies (the latest craze!). If a child is frequently on the go seeking sensory input, then a sensory box may help to ground the child as they get their sensory needs met. A formalised Sensory Profile can completed by an Occupational Therapist to help guide what sensory tools may be needed. But the child themselves may also be able to let you know through their behaviour (what do they shy away from? What are they drawn to?) or just simply ask them what they prefer.
- Provide alternative play options
Whilst running in the playground may help many children to unwind. For some children though, the playground can be challenging and a continuation of executive functioning demands and stimulation. These children may prefer to “unwind” by going to the library or playing in a quiet corner of the playground. This doesn’t have to be everyday – or for every child with Autism – as some definitely benefit from running off their energy! If in doubt, ask the child what they like to do at lunch or observe where they go.
A note about socialising and “social skills”
Some Autistic children (not all) may shy away from social interaction at lunch time preferring instead for some well-earned “me-time”. This allows a mental rest from the social demands within the classroom. Adults need not panic about the lost opportunities to “develop social skills” – they are likely already getting plenty of these!
Speaking of social skills….
It’s important to differentiate between supporting communication between peers and reinforcing the unhealthy act of masking and camouflaging in a (albeit well-intentioned) process of “normalising” autistic communication. Masking can be incredibly tiring for an autistic and contributes to overwhelm and more longer-term affects (e.g. burn-out, reduced self-identity, depression, anxiety – the list goes on).
There is reciprocal benefit in pairing students of diverse backgrounds to develop everyone’s understanding of different communication needs. But this will be a topic of another post… 🙂
The above tips are designed to reduce the overwhelm for autistic children while they are at school – but the behaviours after school can give a pretty good indication of how well an environment is matched to their needs.
Your Psych Centre can offer tailored recommendations for your child’s needs or liaise with their school to guide the implementations.Contact us for an appointment.